Well, it finally happened. One of Top Chef season 19’s three frontrunners — chefs Buddha Lo, Jackson Kalb, and Houston’s own Evelyn Garcia — made a series of poor decisions that led to elimination.
Fittingly, it came at the end of Restaurant Wars, a signature Top Chef episode that tasks the cheftestants with creating a restaurant from scratch in 36 hours. The pressure of developing a concept, creating a menu, choosing decorations, and managing service to 50 diners proved too great for one of this year’s shining stars, who had to pack his knives and go.
Let’s break down the show from a Houston perspective by highlighting the local people and places who appeared in the episode. Then we’ll check in on the progress of local cheftestant Evelyn Garcia and keep track of the overall competition.
Outside of a return to Post Houston, this episode didn’t feature much in the way of local color. Rather than find a local food personality to serve as guest judges, the show opts for Food & Wine editor-in-chief Hunter Lewis and Dallas Top Chef alum Tiffany Derry.
Viewers who kept an eye on the chyrons spotted local artist GONZO247, who contributed to the Top Chef kitchen’s production set design, as well as Fluff Bake Bar owner and Top Chef: Just Desserts alum Rebecca Masson. True food obsessives might have caught a brief shot of Chronicle barbecue columnist J.C. "Chris" Reid among the diners.
Having dined at Matriarc, this author knows Texas football legend Vince Young also attended the taping, but any footage of him got left on the cutting room floor. If the editors didn't include V-Y, who knows what other VIPs might have scored a coveted seat at either restaurant?
How did Evelyn Garcia do
Houston’s own cheffestant had a pretty uneven Restaurant Wars experience. Padma faults her pani puri for lacking “puri,” the liquid component that’s an essential element of the dish. In addition, the curry recipe Garcia attempts to teach Luke Kolpin gets criticized for being too sweet. Typically, the executive chef of the losing team would be on the chopping block, but she’s saved from elimination by the quality of the bbq nem sausage she made and, more importantly, by not being remotely delivering the worst performance on the team.
Team Matriarc — chefs Buddha, Ashleigh Shanti, Nick Wallace, and Damarr Brown — secures the victory for their well-executed, Southern-inspired fare. Chef Ashleigh earns the individual win based on leading the kitchen as executive chef and her flavorful gumbo z’herbs. Considering Ashleigh had been eliminated and returned via Last Chance Kitchen, the Restaurant Wars victory represents a serious comeback for a chef who had struggled in previous challenges.
The whole team shines, with Buddha providing smooth service to both the diners and judges, and Damarr serving carrot cake that head judge Tom Colicchio calls the best he’s ever had.
Who goes home
Jackson’s ability to win challenges despite losing his senses of smell and taste due to COVID-19 has been truly astonishing, but his luck finally runs out. Decisions he advocates for directly contributed to team No Nem’s loss.
That starts with suggesting a Southeast Asian theme, even though only chef Evelyn cooks in that style. Then, he proposes family-style service instead of individual plates over the objections of Luke. Additionally, he proposes sending the courses two at a time, which creates confusion among the diners who don’t know whether they’re supposed to be eaten separately or together.
Even more critically, he takes on front of the house and utterly fails at it. Jackson doesn’t greet the judges when they arrive, tasks a server with explaining the first two courses instead of doing it himself, and generally ignores them until Evelyn orders him to converse with the panel. Combined with a disappointing shortbread cookie, the errors are enough to send the chef packing.
Who exceeded expectations
Despite being on the losing team, chef Jae Jung acquits herself well. Her seafood-wrapped spring roll is among No Nem’s strongest dishes, and the sauce she prepared for the bbq sausage earns universal raves. It’s a solid bounce back for the chef who struggled in last week’s Jurassic Park-inspired challenge.